November 20, 2010

In the last 48 hours, the temperature has dropped almost 50 degrees! I am sitting curled up on the couch with my trusty pooch warming my toes trying to regain my core body heat after skiing up Sourdough this afternoon and I am reminded of my very favorite scientific study which happened in another very cold place, Siberia.

Rewind to about 50 years ago to frigid Novosibirsk, USSR. In 1959, a guy named Dmitry Belyaev, spurned by the scientific elites of the Soviet regime, started an experiment on silver foxes. Belyaev had 100 foxes and he chose to mate only foxes that did not react aggressively toward humans. He classed them into three categories, I – foxes that are friendly toward the experimenters, II – foxes that allowed themselves to be petted but did not act friendly and III – foxes that were aggressive toward humans. By the sixth generation, they had to add a fourth category, the domesticated elite (remember this is Soviet Russia), which were eager to establish a relationship with humans. In the tenth generation 18% of foxes were elite and 40 years into the experiment 70-80% of the foxes were elite!

This rate of domestication is much faster than scientists had previously thought possible, but the experiment gets significantly cooler. The domesticated foxes, who were only selected for lack of aggression, started showing morphological traits that we associate with dogs – large floppy ears, curled tails, piebald fur, longer or shorter fur, bark vocalizations and a shortened muzzle. Scientists believe that these traits are associated with a decreased release of adrenaline in domesticated animals compared to wild animals, especially since many of the traits are ubiquitous to the spectrum of domesticated animals. Think of, for example, the blaze of white found on many border collie foreheads, then the same blaze on some breeds of horses, cows and pigs.

Most importantly, all of these traits are considered juvenile. Unlike wild foxes which turn more and more aggressive after about 3 months, the domesticated foxes stayed in puppy phase (only psychologically, since the foxes could breed).

Back in the day, approximately 100,000 years ago, people domesticated wolves, or as some believe, wolves domesticated people. If it would lead to less aggression and more cuteness, I would say that dogs need to work on domesticating their people a little more.

There are some floppy ears for you


3 Responses to “Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

  1. emo said

    I want to fly with floppy ears.

    Is that Luna?

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